So, yes, he’d taken the name, remade it, and let it stick. But this was the first time he’d told his coworkers to call him “Control” and he couldn’t say why, really. It had just come to him, as if he could somehow gain a true fresh start.
Still little is known of Area X.
The 12th (actually the 38th) expedition to the strange coastal area of vegetation followed the same pattern as all of the prior iterations: The team is unsuccessful and falls, with just a few members returning back to the world, each irrevocably changed. One of the survivors of expedition 12 is the Biologist, who calls herself “Ghost Bird.”
John Rodriguez—or “Control” to the rest of the world—assumes directorship of the Southern Reach organization in time for the debriefing of the 12th expedition. While the Southern Reach isn’t the prestigious top-secret intelligence organization of former glory years, Control still takes the job very seriously. In his early tenure at the Southern Reach, Control fixates on two women: the Biologist and his predecessor, the vanished former Director.
Control knows that, somehow, Area X is changing, and that a current of manipulation, misinformation, and horror underpins anyone involved with the Southern Reach.
Control knows that, somehow, the Biologist and the former Director are the keys to this change.
And Control knows that, somehow, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Jeff VanderMeer is back to his strange and unsettling best with Authority, the second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy and follow-up to February’s Annihilation. This time around, the action moves from the pristine heart of vegetative horror in Area X to a pit of bureaucracy and myriad micro-internal power struggles within the Southern Reach organization. Authority also features a new protagonist with Control—a meticulous, introspective figure who is propelled by some unknown force to exhume the secrets of the Southern Reach and Area X. Like its predecessor, Authority is a beautifully written and subtly disquieting affair; unlike its predecessor, the focus of Authority’s discomfort is purely internalized through Control’s stilted narrative, without any of the overt horrific genre elements (creeping vines, unfathomable tunnels) of the Biologist’s tale.
In other words: Authority is both very different and very similar to Annihilation. It’s the continuation of the same story, but it’s also an obfuscating companion tale. Heading into this novel, I had no idea what to expect. Would it be a progression of the Biologist’s tale? Another expedition into Area X? A Lost-esque mythology-heavy tome extolling the secrets of the Southern Reach and all of the things the organization has done to create/excavate/understand this stretch of pristine wilderness?
Authority is not really any of these things. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what Authority is, or what it purports to do, or where the series is going.
What I know is this: I cannot stop thinking about Authority, and I want to read more.
A little to the left, Control, and maybe you’ll pick up that flash of light.
It all really comes down to Control. More than just a theme or a concept, this character is a large reason why Authority is so successful. Control is actually an amusing moniker, given how little control he actually has over his life, his relationships, and his work. I loved this strange, paranoid protagonist—like the biologist before him, from the outset of the book you know that something is wrong with Control. His reactions, his evaluations, his myriad internal struggles and overanalysis of every single conversation with his subordinates…everything is surreal and off and elusive. In many ways, his narrative reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (unsurprising then that I loved Control’s story, considering Never Let Me Go is a favorite book). From his fractured childhood to his desire to please his streak-of-light mother (also an agent, also elusive), Control is a fascinating, surprisingly fragile figure. Against the Biologist’s utter detachment and independence from the rest of the world, Control is desperately, subconsciously yearning for connection: with his mother, his grandfather, the former Director, and the Biologist herself. He’s also, for reasons I will not divulge because of spoilers, a kind of blank slate—and that is fascinating in its own way.
“You are a little off,” Grace had said when the others had left. “You are not all there.”
While there is so much that is done so well in Authority in terms of writing and character, unfortunately, there’s very little overall progression of the series. Contrary to Authority’s cover copy, promising “Area X’s most disturbing questions are answered...but the answers are far from reassuring” there are actually no questions answered in this novel. The only real development pushing the story through to its inevitably catastrophic (I’m guessing) conclusion occurs in the last 50 pages of the book. It’s a fantastic development and a hell of a way to end the novel—but there’s absolutely nothing else divulged or that occurs in this second book. I don’t hold that against Authority—in fact, I actually preferred this book to Annihilation because it’s so obscuring, so foreboding, so profoundly internalized versus that first book’s more traditional approach to genre SFF. (That said, caveat emptor—mine seems to be a minority opinion, especially in contrast to Kirkus’ official reviews of the two novels.)
I’m reminded of Lost when reading the Southern Reach Trilogy—Authority in particular (and I’m not just talking about white bunny rabbits hopping around the jungle). So many provoking, destabilizing questions are asked, and answers are promised but not given…at least not yet. I don’t know if VanderMeer can deliver on these promises, or if Area X is unfathomable even to its creator…but I’m hopeful that he will bring it home with Acceptance.
In Book Smugglerish, 7 frantic white rabbits out of 10.